31 Jan 2018

Tiny salt crystals on meteorites contain “essential building blocks of life,” say scientists

Scientists have discovered organic compounds and liquid water for the first time on 4.5 billion year old meteorites, suggesting the building blocks of life may be present on some of our neighbouring asteroids.

Research carried out by an international team including scientists from The Open University (OU), NASA Johnson Space Centre, Yokohama National University, and other institutions* has discovered both amino acids, which form the basis of proteins and life, and liquid water within salt crystals in meteorite samples.

The research was based on the first comprehensive analysis of salt crystals on two meteorites, Zag and Monahans, which fell to Earth in 1998. Whilst these have been the subject of previous studies, recent technological advances – such as highly sensitivity mass spectrometers, which detect different molecules based on their size – have enabled scientists to analyse the precise composition of these salt crystals. The research was also conducted with NanoSIMS equipment, which uses beams of ions to study the chemical composition of the organic material at nanoscopic scales.

Lead author and Postdoctoral Researcher at The Open University, Dr Queenie Chan, explains:

“We collected the tiny salt crystals from the meteorites, and dissolved them in water so that we could extract the amino acids and separate any organic compounds to analyse them. We conducted our experiments in one of the cleanest laboratories in the world at the NASA Johnson Space Centre, which avoided any contamination from things such as dust in the air.”

Within the salt crystals, the team of scientists discovered amino acids, which form the basis of proteins, and other hydrocarbons, alongside the most important ingredient required to support life: liquid water.

“Each salt crystal, which is about two millimetres in size and the colour of a blue sapphire, is essentially a little package full of organic compounds and the necessary building blocks of life,” continued Chan. “What’s even more incredible is that the salt crystals from both meteorites are believed to be from the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, Ceres, which suggests that it could be a suitable place for the formation of life.”

The research, ‘Organic matter in extraterrestrial water-bearing salt crystals’, has been published in Science Advances.

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